In recent months, the number of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic extremists has increased across Africa, which has prompted questions about the resurgence of armed groups that operate in the region.
- 21 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab fighters stormed and took over a beachfront restaurant in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. When the siege was over, more than 20 people had been killed in the attack.
- 15 January 2016 – Gunmen stormed a café popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. They fired at people and set the café ablaze and then attacked a nearby hotel. At least thirty people were killed after a more than 12-hour siege. The North African branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility, stating that fighters from al-Murabitoun, an affiliated terror group, had carried out the assault.
- 15 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia, killing an unknown number of Kenyan peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab has since claimed that it killed about 100 Kenyans, adding that they had also captured several soldiers. Kenyan authorities have not released a death toll. Kenya has provided a major contingent to the AU force that is fighting al-Shabaab and assisting the elected government of Somalia.
- 28 December 2015 – Boko Haram Islamic extremists struck a city and a town in northeastern Nigeria with rocket-propelled grenades and multiple suicide bombers. At least eighty people were killed in Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno.
- 20 November 2015 – Islamic extrmeists seized dozens of hostages at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. At least twenty people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege. AQIM and al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was their first joint attack.
In the wake of Friday’s deadly terrorist attack in Burkina Faso, the West African country and neighbouring Mali have agreed to work together to counter the growing threat of Islamic militants in West Africa by sharing intelligence and conducting joint security patrols.
According to officials, the prime ministers of Mali and Burkina Faso met on Sunday, just two days after al-Qaeda militants seized the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, opened fire on a restaurant and attacked another hotel nearby, killing at least 28 people from at least seven countries and wounding fifty others. The assault, which was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) just hours later, follows a similar raid that occurred in November 2015 on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako. That attack resulted in the death of twenty people, including citizens from China, Russia and the United States. In a statement on the attack in Burkina Faso, AQIM identified three attackers and called the targeted hotel and surrounding areas “one of the most dangerous dens of global espionage in the west of the African continent,” warning that “this blessed operation is but a drop in the sea of global jihad.”
On Sunday, Burkina Faso’s prime minister Paul Kaba Thieba disclosed that “there is a very strong political will on the part of the two states to combine our efforts to fight terrorism.” Thieba and his Malian counterpart Modibo Keita visited the outside of the Splendid Hotel on Sunday, where bullet holes and a charred exterior offered reminders of Friday evening’s attack. Tight security was in place around the hotel while inside, Burkinabe and French security officials were conducting an investigation. Security forces in Burkina Faso retook the 146-room hotel on Saturday after firefights with militants, at least three of whom were killed. Survivors have since reported that militants targeted white victims at the hotel and at the restaurant, both of which were popular among westerners.
According to provisional figures released by the Burkinabe government, amongst the dead were eight Burkinabe’s, four Canadians, three Ukrainians, two Portuguese, two French, two Swiss and one Dutch citizen. Seven bodies are yet to be identified and the list is subject to change. On Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated that six Canadians had been killed. Also on Sunday, Italy’s foreign ministry reported that a nine-year-old Italian boy and his mother were killed in the assault on Cappuccino, the restaurant attacked opposite the Splendid Hotel. The boy and his mother were the son and wife of the restaurant owner.
While the exact details of the cooperation between Burkina Faso and Mali currently remain unclear, patrols and the sharing of intelligence mark an intent by the two countries to prevent the spread of militancy as AQIM and others expand operations in the region beyond their usual reach. While over the past several years, Islamic militants have used northern Mali as a base, recently, they have staged a number of attacks in other parts of the country, moving further south and prompting concerns that they are expanding their area of operation. Burkina Faso’s authorities are now concerned that its long desert border with Mali could become a transit point for militants.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury hotel in Mali in late November, shot to global notoriety when his militants carried out an assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago. Long known as “The Uncatchable,” international militaries have tried to catch him on numerous occasions. Despite several reports of his death, it is evident that Belmokhtar remains alive and continues to have the capabilities of carrying out deadly attacks across the Sahelian region.
In mid-November 2015, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian revealed that United States bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland. Washington has pledged a reward of US $5 million on his head. Of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region that straddles the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office in Gao, which is located in northern Mali. Colonel Luc Laine has stated that “it reminds me that he exist and wants to do me harm.”
A source within the Malian intelligence services has disclosed that “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists.” He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south region of Algeria, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed. In May of this year, he reaffirmed that his group, al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to al-Qaeda, effectively denying allegiance, which was paid to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group by another of the movement’s leaders.
Born in 1972, in the ancient desert city of Ghardai, which is located 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, Belmokhtar stated in a rare 2007 interview that he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen who were combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. He had joined the in 1991, when he was barely 19 years old. He claims that it was in Afghanistan that he lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel. He also states that it was there that he made his first contacts with al-Qaeda. He later joined al-Qaeda’s ranks and would eventually rise to a senior position.
Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, just a year after the government sparked a civil war by cancelling an election, which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. At this point, he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent camping of civilian massacres in its battle against the government. During the violence, the group would sometimes wipe out entire villages. His knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger effectively enabled him to thrive in the region.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, who had now gained the nickname “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, opted to go with them. Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – effectively becoming al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch. Since then, AQIM has managed to create a tight network across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone. They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have been able to finance their operations through the making of millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages.
In 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali, officials reported that Belmoktar purchases weapons in Libya, adding that he was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu. There have been conflicting reports about his departure from al-Qaeda, with some reports stating that he was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in northern Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.” Other reports have suggested that he separated from AQIM in a bid to form another terror group that would further its spread in Africa. In January 2013, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” and led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault. The attack occurred just a few days after France launched a military operation aimed at helping Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
In May 2013, just two months after he was reportedly killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Nigeria’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger. Al-Murabitoun was formed months later, in August, when his “Signatories in Blood” group joined forces with another regional jihadist group, MUJAO. In March, the group claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako. Five people were killed in that attack.
Just days after the 20 November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility, stating “this blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”
In its annual report, which was published on 15 December, media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) disclosed that while fewer journalists were imprisoned this year, the number held hostage increased, noting that China and Egypt were named the worst nations for jailing media workers.
According to the RSF, the number of journalists put in prison fell fourteen percent in 2015 from last year. Furthermore, fifty-four professional journalists were held hostage in 2015, an increase of 35 percent from the last year. The reports points to Syria as the country with the highest number of reporters in the hands of extremist or criminal groups at 26. The report also indicates that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group alone holds eighteen journalists, largely in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
The report also described China as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” followed by Egypt, adding that Iran and Eritrea were also condemned for jailing members of the press.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire noted that “a full-blown hostage industry has developed in certain conflict zones.” He highlighted Yemen as being the newest problem country for reporters, with thirty-three journalists kidnapped by Houthi militias and al-Qaeda militants in 2015, compared with just two in the previous year. According to Deloire, “we are very alarmed by the increase in the number of reporters held hostage in 2015. The phenomenon is above all linked to the big surge in abductions of journalists in Yemen.”
Meanwhile lawless Libya had the largest number of journalists reported missing this year. With eight members of the press unaccounted for, the RSF noted that the political climate “makes it harder to conduct investigations to locate missing journalists.”
A United States military spokesman reported on 10 December that the finance chief of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has been killed in air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition.
According to the spokesman, Muwaffaq Mustafa Mohammed al-Karmoush, also known as Abu Salah, along with two other senior leaders, were killed in the air strikes, which occurred in “recent weeks.” No further details pertaining to the strikes have been released. US military spokesman Col. Steve Warren has also confirmed the deaths.
Abu Salah is the code name for Muwaffaq Mustafa Mohammed al-Karmoush. He appears on the US Treasury’s Counter Terrorism Designations list setting out sanctioned individuals. It lists him as an Iraqi national who was born in 1973. Col. Warren called Abu Salah “one of the most senior and experienced members” of the militant group’s financial network, adding that “killing him and his predecessors exhausts the knowledge and talent needed to co-ordinate funding within the organizations.” He further disclosed that the other leaders killed in the air strikes were Abu Mariam, a senior chief responsible for extortion activities, and Abu Waqman al-Tunis, who co-ordinated the transfer of people, weapons and information. Brett McGurk, special US presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, has reported that the three were killed “as part of the coalition campaign to destroy ISIL’s (Islamic State’s) financial infrastructure.”
The coalition has been carrying out air strikes against IS militants both in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq for over a year. One of these airstrikes recently killed an IS leader in Libya. On Monday, 7 December, the Pentagon confirmed that a US air strike killed Abu Nabil, adding that he died after an F-15 jet targeted a compound in the eastern city of Derna on 13 November.